It’s rare you’ll find me up and about at 6.30am on a Saturday but that’s precisely what happened during a wellness weekend at Chilston Park Hotel in Kent recently.
This stunning Grade 1-listed country house, which has teamed up with Liberty Wellbeing to offer a series of stress-relieving retreats, was running a two-night yoga, Tai Chi and mindfulness programme. I was there for the day job but the timing was ideal.
I’d recently moved house – one of the most stressful things you can do – and desperately needed a break from sorting and lifting heavy boxes and making endless phone calls to utility companies.
When left to my own devices relaxation is something I struggle with despite it being an important factor in the management of my tongue swelling reactions. A structured wellness weekend dedicated to slowing down would certainly leave no room for excuses.
Except, I hadn’t envisaged waking up with the larks. I’m not good with early starts plus I’m a worrier. Throw in a 6am alarm call and you’ll undoubtedly find me wide awake at 2am fretting over the fact that I have to be up in four hours. Yet, to my surprise, this did not happen.
Jennie Lichfield, Liberty Wellbeing’s principal teacher and the mastermind behind our schedule, believes this could have something to do with the fact that, just by being there, I had ‘given myself permission to unwind’.
The previous evening I’d arrived at Chilston Park, a pretty 17th-century country house set in 22 acres, which is one of a number of luxury properties in the Hand Picked Hotels portfolio.
A lovely chap called Guy led me through the characterful property – complete with spectacular wooden staircase and fascinating coffee tables fashioned out of original wooden shutters – into a room for tea and vegan and gluten-free carrot cake.
There I met the other course attendees – a mix of 40 and 30-something married couples, mums, and millennials – who were all equally as eager to do the right thing by their minds and bodies.
Jennie talked us through the itinerary and there were smiles all round when she said we could roll out of bed and into the 6.30am group meditation session in our PYJAMAS should we desire. There’d also be warm blankets and plump cushions, too. *Yay*
That night we took part in a ‘yoga for sleep’ session before bonding over deliciously nourishing vegetarian food. It was a blissful evening spent with like-minded souls and when I headed back to my quaint and cosy room (named Austen after the literary heroine – the rooms do not have numbers) at 9.30pm I felt as though I’d walked into a warm embrace.
There flickering on the TV was a video of a log fire, complete with dancing flames and the instantly calming sound of crackles.
A fluffy Larry the Lamb (the hotel’s equivalent of a Do Not Disturb sign) sat in the middle of my comfortable bed – which had been turned down for the evening – together with a welcome letter providing hotel team contact details, breakfast serving times and the following day’s weather.
I made full use of the complimentary organic Clipper hot chocolate sachets, Walkers shortbread biscuits and still and sparkling water in my room, too. By the time I climbed into bed I’d forgotten all about the hustle and bustle of the outside world and felt light and carefree.
“The first evening is about laying down the journey to get here and marking the end of the busy week,” Jennie explains. “You can go to a one hour [meditation or yoga] session in your local area but it just starts to scratch the surface. When you come here, wake up the next morning in a beautiful location and totally immerse yourself it becomes a different experience and you do even more of this unfolding.”
The following day’s mindfulness session was held in the Coach House (converted stables). Jennie gently guided us through the practice, encouraging us to pay attention to the breath and body and to notice, in a non-judgemental way, how we were feeling. We learned that being present like this can help stop the mind racing and relinquish unhelpful thought patterns.
“You start to understand yourself more, recognise the attributes in your life that are perhaps not helping you or you learn new ways that will serve you better,” Jennie explains. “It’s really good to spend this much time dedicated to yourself because the deeper you go the more you learn.”
I certainly found both meditation sessions (there was another on Sunday) useful. Taking a moment to be still helped me gain insight and wisdom into my feelings, as well as the way I respond to certain situations and how I talk to myself on a daily basis.
“As soon as you start to see that you’re telling yourself the story that you’re useless, you won’t tell yourself that anymore,” Jennie continues. “Don’t believe the horrible things you tell yourself, believe the opinion of others.
“Weekends like this help us to recognise how much we are living a fast life and by slowing down and offering some kind of reflective practices it means we can begin to choose. Is this OK for me? Is this how I want to be? We have the opportunity to choose the right path for us but if we’re living too fast and on that treadmill, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to decide.”
But it wasn’t just the mindfulness aspect that left me feeling better equipped to face the world. Physically, the Hatha yoga sessions did wonders for my creaky body. I especially enjoyed Yin, which according to our instructor Samantha Stone – who trained with the British Wheel of Yoga – is performed at a much slower pace and a good complement to regular yoga.
“Normal yoga focuses on stretching the muscles, Yin works to stress the joints, the ligaments, the fascia [connective tissue] to make them stronger,” she says. “This is a good technique for people in their older years.
“It’s supportive and the idea is that you find a pose that you can stay in for three increments. Yin is also fantastic if you’re younger and struggle with monkey mind because of the mindfulness element. You hold a pose and ask yourself how does this feel, where’s the sensation? You connect to it which can slow down the mind.”
Perhaps, what I loved most about the wellness weekend was the fact that I could just be. There was no pressure to attend every class. I tried Tai Chi for the first time, an ancient martial art that combines breathing, relaxation and flowing movements, but didn’t get on with it and Jennie said it was fine for me to sit the following day’s class out.
So I engaged in mindful colouring instead – which I thoroughly enjoyed – and read some of the meditation books and wellbeing magazines that were liberally scattered about. I could have gone for a lie down to but was extremely keen to drink up the knowledge I’d been exposed to.
Oh, and how could I forget the food?! It. Was. Sublime. As some of you know I’m on quite a restricted diet due to my histamine intolerance but the chef worked his magic conjuring up delicious dishes for both myself and others who had vegan, dairy and gluten-free dietary requirements.
The food was some of the best I’d ever tasted – unsurprising given the fact that Culpeper’s is a 2 AA Rosette fine dining restaurant.
Starters included roast parsnip soup, dairy-free herb and mushroom frittata, quinoa and apple salad, while main dishes comprised things like chickpea and roast onion curry, vegetable fried rice, garlic sautéed green beans, butternut squash and spinach gratin and spiced sweet potato wedges. I feasted like a queen and was excited to walk away with new recipe ideas.
If you’re feeling super stressed and in need of some me time this reasonably-priced wellness retreat is for you. Not only do you leave feeling rested and nourished physically, mentally and visually – the historic hotel has many interesting traditional features – you end up learning a great deal about yourself.
Also, I particularly liked the fact that Jennie handed out take-home laminated Liberty Wellbeing fact sheets so that we could continue using the mindfulness techniques in the real world. She’d thought of everything.
The bonus was that I got to meet some lovely like-minded people. In fact, Leah Lardwood, owner of the blog Roots and Toots and I instantly hit it off and are still in touch, so we have the retreat to thank for our blossoming friendship, too!
For more information or to book a Liberty Wellbeing wellness retreat visit the Chilston Park website or call 01622 859803. The price is £275 per person double/twin occupancy or £350 per person single occupancy.
If you liked this article, you might also be interested in our travel reviews of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Barbados, and Austria. Or if you’re looking for more wellness posts or articles on ways to relax in the UK, you might like to visit this meditation studio, try a hypnotherapy mind massage, mobile phone video therapy or give e-biking a spin.